Biggest sources of misspellings

Because of the irregularities in its spelling, learning to read and write English takes roughly ten times longer than other languages with Latin-based writing systems: three years instead of three months for reading and 10 years instead of one year for writing.

English spelling has been repeatedly worsened since it was first adapted from biblical Latin in 7th century.  Instead of just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, it now has 205. And despite having many more spellings than sounds, 69 of them are used for more than one sound (a: at – any, apron;  ai: wait – plait, said;  oon – once, only…). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just to write.

Nearly all English spelling patterns have exceptions. Some are irregular in only a few words (e.g. ‘a’ of ‘mad cat sprang’ just ‘plaid, plait, meringue’).  But two necessitate nearly as much word by word memorisation of unpredictable spellings as all others combined:   1)  The randomly doubled and not doubled of consonants which affect 1272 words, like  ‘rabbit – habit,  abridge – abbreviate;   offer – profit,  offend;   apple – chapel’  and             2) The use of 12 totally unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound in 459 words, as in ‘eel, eat,  these, police,  believe, weird,  secret, people,  key, quay,  ski,  debris.’

Spelling of the /ee/ sound was made irregular in the 15th century, when after nearly 300 years of French rule, English became the official language of England again. The court scribes who had to switch from French to English wrecked Chaucer’s regular spelling of the /ee/ sound, as in ‘speke, speche, preste, preche, beleve, reson …’.

They probably found the switch challenging. They may also have made English spelling deliberately more difficult, to prevent ordinary people from being able to learn to read and write too easily. When they were obliged to adopt what had hitherto been mainly just the language of illiterate peasants, they were losing their previously superior status as speakers and writers of French . They can’t have been happy about it. (Nowadays many people are opposed to making English spelling even just a bit more learner-friendly.)

The English system of consonant doubling,  for differentiating between long and short a, e, i, o and u (as in ‘mane – manner, diner – dinner), was ruined with the 1755 publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. He revered Latin and believed that English needed to be made more Latinate in order to become fit for scientific discourse. Most learned treatises were still written in Latin, even in the 18th century, just as Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ had been in the 17th.

Johnson therefore decided that words from Latin roots did not need to conform to the English method of using consonant doubling for showing that a stressed vowel was short, as in ‘rabbit, merry, silly, collar, muddy’. He left many of them looking as if they had long vowels (e.g. ‘habit, merit, lily, column, study), as in ‘rabies, merely, silage, colon, music’.  He damaged the system even further by using doubling after unstressed vowels – to mark changes to their original Latin roots (as in ‘abbreviate, accomplish’ and ‘arrive’).

If the two worst dilutions of English spelling consistency were reversed, learning to write would become much easier. If it became permissible to spell the /ee/ sound regularly (e.g. eel, eet, eeven, poleece, peeple, beleeve, weerd, mee,  kee [quee], skee, debree) with perhaps [just a few exceptions], more than 450 words would stop being repeatedly misspelt,  and teachers would not have to keep correcting them over and over again.

Regular use of consonant doubling, after all short, stress vowels (e.g. ‘habbit, merrit, lilly, collumn, studdy’),  would make an equally big difference. Combining this with the dropping of pointless doubling ( parralel, witnes, acomodation), woud make it even better.

Amelioration of just those two big English spelling problems would already make English literacy acquisition much easier. They have caused zillions of ‘misspellings’ since becoming  enshrined in Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. They have made learning to read much harder than need be too:  frieze – friend, dried;   hear – heard, heart;  even – ever; machine – define, engine;   latter, later – lateral;  attitude – latitude….

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